Septs of Clans -
Septs are families or branches of
clans using a different surname from that of the chief they follow.
The idea of the sept
has become contentious - because too many clans are claiming names as septs
without showing any reason or proof of the link - but properly understood the
concept is a valid one, and some relationships between a septname and the clan
claiming it can be explained and proved (though many cannot!). There are various
ways in which genuine septs come into being:
By choice: When families or small clans placed themselves under the protection
of a more powerful chief - often the head of a clan descended from the same
parent kindred. Examples would be the MacKenzie sept of MacMurchie (i.e. MacMurchadh)
or Murchison; and the MacLean sept of MacRaing or Rankin. Many families
associated with Clan Chattan are said originally to have joined the
Confederation by placing themselves under the protection of Mackintosh; but most
of them are now considered clans in their own right rather than - as they used
sometimes to be termed - as septs of Clan Chattan (e.g. MacGillivray, MacQueen
By conquest: When the land of a
family or small clan is taken over by a more powerful chief to whom
they then owe allegiance as tenants - a legal relationship subsequently
reinforced by familial ties of marriage and political protection & favour.
Examples include the MacLeod sept of MacRaild/MacHarold on Skye; the MacDonald
sept of MacEanruig/MacHenry in Glencoe; the MacDougall sept of MacLulich/MacCulloch
When a family choose to use as their surname a
patronymic or a nickname remembering the particularly powerful individual member of the parent
clan from whom they descend. Examples include the Gunn sept of MacRob or Robson
named for Robert one of the sons of George Gunn "the Crowner" (i.e.
coroner) of Caithness; the Campbell sept of MacConnochie (Gaelic original MacDhonnachaidh)
named for Donnchadh/Duncan Campbell of Inverawe; the Cameron sept of Taylor
named for Donald mac Ewen An Taillear Dubh ("The Black
Tailor"). This sort of sept sometimes grew into a clan in it's own right;
obvious example being the branch of Clan Donald descended from Alastair Mor,
brother of Angus Mor mac Donald of Islay, who became the Clan MacAlister.
4. When a branch of the clan use a different -
often an Englished - version of the usual clan surname. Examples would
include the Davidson sept of Mackay in Easter Ross (from MacDhai); the
MacNab sept of Abbot (Mac-an-Aba means son of the abbot); the MacMillan
sept of Bell (for explanation of which see Surnames).
common names (trade-names and names derived from physical characteristics for
example) are associated with more than one clan and area origins may determine
which clan affiliation is appropriate for any particular family.
A more detailed
analysis of Septs can be found in Chapter 4 of Genealogy
in the Gaidhealtachd, and lengthy
lists of septname affiliations - many of which should be taken with a large
pinch of salt - can be found in:
Frank Adam, The Clans, Septs & Regiments of the Scottish Highlands
(Edinburgh 1908, 1970, 1975)
George Way & Romilly Squire, Scottish Clan & Family Encyclopedia
(Glasgow, 1994 & 1998).